The thing is to change the world; but it is also true that everything remains always the same. The assignment then is (to put it simply) the simultaneous affirmation and rejection of what is.
— Norman O. Brown
There’s a bony finger pointed at me, and another, and another. Old spirits, dead but never gone, our living history, the crust we call our past — Dallas, Selma, Chicago, the other meat on the rack — their voices all stink and ridicule, over the chains and the fire: DON’T TRUST THEM, NOT AGAIN.
But I’ve taken the worm. I’m going to vote for Jimmy Carter. I trust him — or more precisely, his contradictions and the fever of his ambitions, the knots up and down his spine, quintessentially democratic, dumb and divine.
Now, I liked Kennedy too, even after the revisionists picked him clean. The imperial weave of Camelot and the plain sackcloth of a family man turned out to be fictions all along: he lied and he whored. But that was the summons of the Sixties — free love being the meanest deception of all — and if he gambled our lives once too often, we were individually, just as reckless, giving up the center for the edge. For that was the summons, and the new frontier: a vast, interior plain calling anyone who dared; who would have made a better sheriff — someone who drank milk and walked the dog?
This is, of course, half of Carter’s appeal: his is a life full of sound respectability — early rising, attention to duty, religious obedience. If, in the Sixties, these virtues seemed too common, we have a decade later, come to cherish the common, to understand, with Krishnamurti, that “it is only the religious mind that is a truly revolutionary mind.” If Carter has yet to prove that his faith is in his tissue, and not just on the tongue, we have, at least, his loving smile. Have we been so poisoned by Hollywood that we must hold that against him?
That it will be held against him is a certainty, not only by those legitimately troubled by the sharp edge of his ambition, but by those voters who see (1) any Southern politician as a Good Ole Boy in drag, (2) any evangelistic Christian as a trouble maker and a risk, (3) any faithful Democrat as feckless, and probably a pimp, and (4) anyone who’d run for President as suspect from the start; this includes Plato and not a few of my friends, the difference being that Plato knew his philosopher-king was nothing but an ideal, while my friends ask not simply for a reborn Christian in the White House, but Jesus Christ himself.
It isn’t Plato, but a cult-hero dearer to these anti-establishment hearts, whose words seem apt:
Only if one loves this earth with unbending passion can one release one’s sadness. A warrior is always joyful because his love is unalterable and his beloved, the earth, embraces him and bestows upon him inconceivable fights. The sadness belongs only to those who hate the very thing that gives shelter to their beings.
With nothing but Carter’s over-glamorized image as a farmer to go by, invoking Don Juan seems naive, at best (although the “warrior” who proceeds “wide-awake, with fear, with respect, and with absolute assurance,” seems not unlike Carter the candidate). Still, I’d need a few minutes alone with him to be sure; what couldn’t be guessed then from his breathing, his smells, whether he tapped his foot, scratched his chin. We could meditate on the sacred mantra, P-0-W-E-R (would his closed fist open like a lotus, each of the thousand petals streaming forth in rays of compassion and public works projects for the downtrodden and the broken-hearted?). We could listen to “Hail to the Chief” (would his eyes spin like prayer wheels, throwing off visionary seeds for the college students to plant during spring break?). We could laugh about Wallace, NBC, CBS all that Washington sweetmeat — Oh yes, Jack had the right idea — but if he waved it away, the mean and the chummy, a Christian fuck you to all that, and turned the tables, asked me if I had discovered the Lord, and if I hemmed and hawed, blowing my nose and explaining about karma, would he silence me with a kiss of hope and forgiveness, his hands like rivers reaching for my heart, and sweeping it up in the long, slow crest of love and victory?
As you can see, I’m not to be trusted. I’m a journalist whose ability to take notes and ask the right questions evaporated years ago on a sunny beach in Spain, when I suddenly became aware that the whole world was alive. I’d known that intellectually; but on that day, I saw the earth breathe, I felt its rhythms and I rediscovered a missing part of myself. Finding corroboration neither in The New York Times or The New Republic, but only in literature I’d hitherto shunned as religious (then an epithet) or plainly bizarre, I began the long, slow drift away from the radical mainstream towards shores for which I’ve yet to find a name. But I’m no Christian, and some of my least favorite among God’s children are those Christians of Carter’s stripe who assume that since I’ve not “accepted” Christ, I’m damned.
I don’t know whether Carter himself is this dogmatic, or what can be expected from a President who sees the world through stained glass windows. His record suggests that he’s able to draw the fine line between his Christian mission and his public responsibilities. But even assuming the worst — that in his dreams Jesus is stumping the country as a reborn Democrat — might it not be less of a price than four more years of the Nixon gang’s sanctimonious devilry? Was Ford really out of his clubhouse when the blood pact was made? Before his confirmation as vice president, he told the Senate that if Nixon were to be removed and he were to succeed him, he would neither intervene in any legal proceedings against Nixon or run for re-election in 1976.
If Jimmy Carter, who says he’ll never lie to us, has mud on his cuffs, where is there water enough for Ford to bathe? Where, indeed, for any of us? The pirate frigate, and ship of state (read Syndicate, and CIA) are indistinguishable at the horizon, and here, in the shallows of the Dream, the foul gas of the Kennedy assassination just now begins to rise to the surface. The self-evident truths we lashed together two centuries ago into a raft serviceable, if not altogether pretty, are splinters in the chest. Shall Carter, if he fails the test, find himself, too, headed toward the bottom, concrete on the leg and a prayer on the lips — with nothing between him and the kingdom of heaven but the lost continent of Atlantis, haven of sailors and Presidents? (John Kennedy turning with a wink and a smile, to ask what he gave for his country).
But this is, surely, jumping the gun (the pun being horrible, and unintentional, thus typically American: is it not an article of faith that only lunatics, demented Castroites and the lot, can deliver the punch line, while we die laughing?) Carter has yet to be elected, let alone become a martyr. Perhaps once in office he can learn whether he’s among the 38,000 people considered a threat to the government. Christ, were he alive, would surely make the list. Shall we expect less of someone who’s accepted Christ in his heart?
So, Jimmy Carter’s religion is our hope and our fear. The Presidency is a cross — Kennedy was killed; Johnson stepped down; Nixon went out the door; no one finishes the track — which Carter, notwithstanding his hunger, must realize. To so desperately strive for the office, and so earnestly believe in himself, is a measure of his faith, or his foolishness — probably both. He’ll need a heart big as the heavens, and just as empty, to rule this land, unless, rendering unto Caesar, he gives it to the corporations and the generals. My prayer is that he won’t. Years ago, he bravely refused to join the White Citizens Council, believing, one may imagine, that no cross need be set ablaze, except within the heart, and there only as a beacon, because the night is long.
And we, great beast of a people, long lost to the dark, cannot quite believe him, nor can we quite disbelieve.